Bobbi Mahlab isn’t afraid of change.
It’s how she evolved a traditional print publishing business into a thriving digitally-focussed, content marketing agency without losing her cool.
Today, 20 years on, Bobbi’s agency Mahlab supports a team of 35 people– journalists, designers, videographers, strategists and sales people. The business works with a number of global brands and organisations and is growing year by year.
Bobbi’s also determined to help other women excel. It’s why she and Adina Jacobs, founder of STM Brands, are in the process of ramping up ‘Mentor Walks Australia’–a unique mentoring program where senior women support emerging female leaders by literally going on a walk together.
For Bobbi, the objective of ‘Mentor Walks’ is a no-brainer: “helping other women is just what good women do” she tells us.
Bobbi is the latest to be featured in our #GameChangingWomen Q&A series. We get the lowdown on life at Mahlab, the rise of digital media and the importance of female mentors.
How did you get to where you are?
This year Mahlab celebrates 20 years in business. It is a significant milestone for any company, but particularly for a media business. Where many media and publishing operations have died in the face of massive digital disruption, we have transformed and thrived. In 2008 a friend and I started a business book group to read about digital trends. It led me to undertake an intensive course on digital publishing that was run by Americans and completely changed my thinking. My business began changing immediately.
Mentor Walks came out of a chance meeting between Adina Jacobs, myself and China restaurateur, Michelle Garnaut, at EY’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women conference in Shanghai last year. Michelle, an Australian, started Mentor Walks in China four years ago. Adina and I went to a walk. It was such a simple, strong idea and experience that at the end of it we looked at each and said ‘let’s do it’, and we did.
What ‘game’ are you changing and why does it need a shift?
Content marketing is all about being customer-centric. In an internet driven world, the power has shifted to the consumer. We are in an age of consumer purchase and research power. Our physical world is increasingly and irrevocably powered by digital.
It is now more important than ever for brands and organisations to help their customers. The brands that succeed are those that connect in a useful and meaningful way: when, where and how their customers want them to. The premise of our business is that if brand helps their customer (rather than just talking about themselves, which they have done traditionally), those brands help themselves.
Mentor Walks offers a twist to traditional mentoring. Mentees are asked to come to a walk with a burning issue. They are matched with a mentor and up to two other mentees and the small group workshops each mentee’s issue during the hour they walk. It is collaborative and intense. The magic is in the collective wisdom of the group. There is no expectation of ongoing contact with the mentor; the mentee has an ongoing relationship with Mentor Walks, but not with a specific mentor.
Who or what inspired you to do this?
I started Mahlab in 1997 when I left a company I loved. I was passionate about what I did and wanted to keep doing it – although differently to where I had just been. I had also proved I could win customers. I am from a family of entrepreneurs, so starting a business was the norm, but I never expected to start Mahlab when I did.
What unique skills do you have that helped you reach this point?
I recently used a tool that assesses your entrepreneurial characteristics. My aptitude for change was off the scale. I think that is why I have thrived throughout the challenge of transforming Mahlab from what was a print publisher into a digitally-focused, content marketing agency.
I am also naturally curious. It’s what led me into journalism, it’s why I love working with diverse clients and why I love travelling. I love insights into different worlds, people, places.
I am also skilled at asking questions. Asking ‘what if, what could be, why, what haven’t we seen’, is part of my make-up. As a leader I’ve learned that asking the right questions is far more important than knowing the answers.
What does an average day look like for you?
I wake up before 6, most mornings I go to the gym or for a walk. I read the news and emails over muesli, get to the office by 9. Lots of meetings, lunches. I am out most weeknights, often at board meetings or work functions. I am usually in bed by 10.
How do you look after your wellbeing and health outside of work?
I do the annual health checks they tell us we should! I exercise most days. I spend time with people I like and love. I say a little thank you to the world every morning.
Have you had mentors, and what have they taught you?
I have long-term mentors and mentors who have helped me solve a problem at a specific time – both men and women. My mum, Evi, is my longest-serving mentor. She is a fabulous feminist, business woman, game-changer and original thinker who has spent her life changing things for women. She’s taught me the impact of disseminating ideas, starting movements and of speaking up. Barbara Cail, the founder of Chief Executive Women, is a great friend and has been my mentor for 25 years. She ‘incubated’ me when I started Mahlab and taught me not to get caught up in other people’s definition of success. She is also a ninja on how power works.
What are you doing to inspire more women and girls into leadership?
Helping other women is just what good women do. It is as simple as that.
Mentor Walks does that en masse. It is a group of generous mentors who give their time to guide aspiring women. It is women helping women, as they should. Our vision for Mentor Walks is to take it to every capital city and the regions. We want women everywhere to have access to quality mentoring and the community it brings.
What’s an awesome podcast you’d recommend?
The Tim Ferris Show. He forensically deconstructs world class performers, from tech titans to athletes to knife-makers. He is a master interviewer whose focus on useful detail is unparalleled.
What advice would you like to tell your 18-year-old self?